The following is an exclusive interview with Supervising sound editor Mark A. Mangini and Sound Designer Dave Whitehead about their work on “The Rite”.
Designing Sound: What ideas did Director Mikael Hafstrom have about the sound design for the film? Did he reference any past exorcism movies for inspiration or homage?
Mark A. Mangini: Mikael did not come to the film with any preconceived notions about the sound of the film. He was open to hearing new ideas and felt that our work would be an exploration; constantly evolving as we discovered together what worked.. We knew we didn’t want to sound like any other films so it was understood that a great deal of experimentation was in our future.
All of us wanted to avoid exorcism movie cliches like overzealous pitch shifting or devilish sounding voice replacements. It was clear from the beginning that the performances, especially Anthony Hopkins’, were quite remarkable and needed little if any work, as they played quite convincingly on their own.
The charge from Mikael was to heighten tension and create dread with sound, where-ever possible, while never allowing it to challenge Father Michael’s skepticism. i.e. if the audience sees or hears something that Fr. Michael didn’t or didn’t acknowledge, what could he be so skeptical about? If he saw a “spinning head” or heard demonic sounds, what was keeping him from believing? As such, up until the final exorcism, everything done in VFX and sound is fairly understated allowing the audience to maintain the same doubt as our protagonist. Everything you see and hear could have a real world explanation. This made our job particularly difficult as we were always having to play “devilish” or “eerie” sounds with just enough believability so as not to beg the audiences credibility and investment in Fr. Michael’s quest for the truth.
Dave Whitehead: As I was working from New Zealand I was only able to talk with Mikael once. Mark is such a great communicator, the notes from Mikael were clear and concise. The most important challenge was the arc in which the demonic experience was delivered. It had to be slowly drip fed and not shoved in your face from word go.
DS: What sound design motif’s were established to hint to the presence of demons/the devil? Did they evolve as the story progressed?
MM: Dave really took the lead here as he created 90% of all the creepy atmospheres and demonic weirdness for the film. An amazing body of work. He made several signature sounds and atmospheres that repeat throughout the film. I had three favorites that he made (though it’s like picking which of your children you like the most): a sound we called THE POPE LAUGHS that opens the movie. A bizarre, quacking echo repeat that we re-used in several other spots to indicate simply that these events (possessions) sprung from the same source, a lovely repeating bell chime that served as the recurring (and re-appearing) bracelet signature, and an amazing and haunting musical presence made out of bicycle spokes used in the girls death in the rain.
DA: The possessions had to build gradually as Father Michael was a non-believer and we had to play into his skepticism. The actual vocal design had to be more plausible yet still disturbing in Rosaria’s first possession scenes and they became more demonic or hard to explain as the story progressed. I liked the notion that being possessed was like falling. I used lots of pitch bending to help give the feeling of falling and developed simple motifs such as the ones Mark mentioned above.
Visual motifs were obvious catalysts for palette building. The nails, the wooden beams in the rectory, the bracelet, crucifixes, the mortuary, the confirmation card and Baal (the demon) himself. The direction regarding Baal was very open, I researched the history of this demon and found a wealth of material online. I didn’t delve there too long as its pretty dark stuff, but it confirmed the direction Mikael had gone down with the presence of cats, frogs, the mule and the overall feeling of dread.
My overall approach on treating darker subject matter like this is to shift normality and the comfort level of the audience. As the demon was presenting itself, the wood in the room could moan, the air can be sucked out of a space and leave only darkness and weight, the demon could talk and the dialogue is around you. Sounds were related to what we saw and enhanced the dread Mikael wanted us to feel, but rules did not have to apply. Ambience can be cut hard in and out in the middle of a scene, dialogue can be in the surrounds. Paranormal spiritual experiences like this, cannot be explained by us, therefore there should be less sonic rules.
The other side of this are the religious motifs. I used choral source material and bells to create ambiences for the rectory and a palette of stingers. Where there were demons, there were also angels. My take on the film was a struggle between good and evil and there had to be a shifting balance between these two.
My favorite scene to design was the bicycle sequence. I recorded bicycle spokes and made stingers, hits, tinkling rain, washes and rhythmic structures. The spokes (from a design perspective) were what drove the scene.
When I was 7 years old I was hit by a taxi and I remembered only a few sounds. The sound of the woman passenger screaming and crying above me, the ambulance doors closing, the siren and the sound of the scissors cutting my clothes open. I liked the way such a traumatic experience gave you only a small handful of sound images to take away, nothing else was important.
I also liked the notion that in this woman’s dying moments, the sound of the bicycle spokes, the rain and Father Michaels words became her requiem.
DS: Rome is such a beautiful city to photograph, how did you establish it sonically?
MM: Well, sadly, we didn’t get to go to Rome to record. That would have been nice. Our producer, Beau Flynn, asked us to bring a fresh approach to the sound of the city. I don’t think we spent enough time in Rome to really establish it sonically. Rome, like many in Europe, is a city of a 1000 churches, and, spending as much time as we do at the Vatican and with priests, it was important to get the bells right.
I did a film in Prague many years ago and I spent three months recording in and around the city where I got the best and freshest church bells I could find and used many of them for the film. The trick was understanding and using the right bells for the right occasion and time of day. They bring so much atmosphere to the Vatican locations and the city. Otherwise, Rome sounds modern, replete with scooters and traffic and the Euro Hi-lo siren (appropriately pitched at an augmented fourth – otherwise known as the Devils’ Interval).
DS: Was any production dialog used for possessed human vocals? If you did shoot group, what were you looking for in the voice talent for the demented characters?
MM: A great deal of Production dialog was used for the possessed vocals. Especially with Anthony Hopkins. Marta’s (the young girl, Rosaria) voice was augmented and replaced with the most ADR, maybe 50% of it but, even then, we used her to ADR herself for effect and to improve her English. Marta is an Italian actress who speaks English quite well but with a discernible accent. The first big exorcism shock is meant to come when she speaks “as if” she’s been possessed by the dead American teenager from the opening scene. We did ADR with Marta and a dialect coach to improve these performances from the production. Her voice was then replaced, selectively, as she got deeper into the exorcisms and to make her sound more devilish and possessed.
Hugh Waddell (who co-designed the demon voices with Dave) and I did several casting sessions in Los Angeles to come up with what would become our “demon” voice for Rosaria (and for Fr. Lucas). We knew we had to replace her voice with not only perfect English but a more demonic sound for key moments in the exorcisms. I can’t say that Hugh and I were looking for anything in particular rather, it was more what we were trying to avoid that drove our selection process: gravelly and cartoon-y evil that you had heard hundreds of times in bad horror films.
During these casting sessions we would have each actor sync record two sequences for both Rosaria and Fr. Lucas. Men and women auditioned for both characters. All would get the same direction from Hugh and I; simple instruction on the kinds of voices to avoid and what we were trying to achieve dramatically. Hugh would then fine cut these recordings and send them, unprocessed, to director Mikael for review who acknowledged a decision we had made during the auditions that Susan Silo was marvelous. She’s an actress I had cast 30 years ago as a Gremlin in the original Gremlins film for Joe Dante. She has this strange combination of vocal qualities and acting ability. Kind of like a possessed Smurf.
All of the subsequent ADR recordings with our newly cast voices were fairly experimental as we searched for sounds and performances that fit the image. Hugh would assemble our select takes into sync tracks and ship them to Dave for further work. Dave would then process, embellish, sweeten and mix these recordings into separate 5.0 stems for the dubbing stage. We separated all the “processed” voices into individual stems as there were great non-language sounds that Dave came up with that wanted to live in the International mix. In the end we had five, 5.0 “demon voice” stems on the Dialog mix console so that we had bussing and mix control over each component.
The big epiphany for Father Lucas was the decision to have Anthony do his own Demon voices. Dave had done some initial voice processing and embellishment for the first temp dub and it was a great success. Everyone knew we wanted to take it a little farther but no one dared admit to Anthony that another actor might replace his voice. It was at this point that I realized we had the most gifted voice over talent in our very midst. We needn’t look and farther. Why not try and utilize Anthony’s consummate acting skills and put them to solving the biggest sonic challenge in the film? Funny how, often, such an obvious solution can avoid discovery for so long!
Anthony came in for one ADR session and did a remarkable job of replacing his own voice with variations of what we had in production as well as creating ghostly whispers and echoes that were meant to swirl around and mimic his sync performance on camera.
Dave did an amazing job of taking those organic echoes and transforming them with bizarre reverbs, delays, pitch shift, and panning. Again, Dave would “process”, for lack of a better term, all of Anthony’s production track and ADR and re-deliver 5.0 mix-downs of his work for the dubbing stage.
What’s fun for me is that, to an uncritical ear, Dave’s work and Anthony’s performances appear to be simple electronic echoes of the source but they are all new performances with subtle voice intonation changes as well as fanciful line readings.
DA: Rosaria’s sequences were an exercise in micro editing. Along side the ADR, I developed a non human palette, that were close to the characteristics of human vocalizations. Her screams were mainly baboons which when pitched down sounded like a demented human, her breaths consisted of asthma attack material from Marks own asthma attack, dogs, horses and mules. Her moans were lion cubs, domestic cats, dogs and a baby crying. The shift between production dialog and all of the ADR provided was constant. Susan Silo’s ADR was definitely great material to work with, she had such and amazing voice and it was the perfect counterpoint to Marta’s amazing ADR and production. Hugh would cut the initial version of each actors ADR and send them to me then I would cut my version incorporating all material, human and non human and send them back to Hugh to get feedback. Rosaria was more about editing and less about effects chains and augmentation.
Initially for Anthony’s scenes we experimented with pitching and adding non human sweeteners. We toyed with the idea of voice replacement, but the fact of the matter is only Anthony could enhance Anthony.
Hugh recorded and cut versions of Anthony whispering and growling lines. We wanted to have Baal be in and around Father Lucas, he did not always have to be attached. It was to make him seem like more than a mere man, more frightening and unhinged. We would have whispered lines playing in the surrounds at the same time Father Lucas was talking on screen. We would add verb to individual lines to accentuate certain points of the scene. For all of these treated dialogue sequences I also delivered the dry version so they could decide how much of the treatment to use.
Again with Anthony it was a constant shift between production and ADR. We did pitch down his material very slightly. The more difficult process was the panning, verb and delayed treatment of his voice. I recorded multiple versions of the same line through various chains and edited the treated 5.0 stems. I then premixed 5.0 splits of dry dialogue, verbs, non English effects/breaths, panned delays etc… and sent these straight to the dubbing stage.
DS: Were any of the recorded exorcisms played during the lecture hall scenes from real incidents? If you did design them, how did you approach/research that?
MM: No. Dave and I listened to a number of recorded examples and they just were not that interesting. What I found was, that if you divorced yourself from the knowledge that they were real exorcisms, they weren’t all that unusual or frightening. In fact, they often sounded cornier than a bad Hollywood horror film; crass, raspy, gravelly voiced amateurs overacting and trying to be scary. Yet they were compelling because you knew they were real.
In other words, it’s all about the context. If a scene is working, is truly scary, just about any sound you use could work. We struggled a great deal with the lecture hall scenes and tried exhaustively to create what became illusory goal: making what was meant to be ‘real’ exorcisms on screen sound frightening. I think this was our sonic “Waterloo”. By that I mean, there is always one sound, one elusive sound, on every film where an inordinate amount of time and resources are spent in trying to achieve a goal that will never be achieved and failure is inescapable, for whatever reasons; the filmmakers don’t know what they want or can’t decide, the action on screen doesn’t carry it’s weight dramatically, etc. We fiddled with these ‘real’ exorcisms a great deal and never satisfied ourselves completely. As is typical in many post-sound endeavors, we accepted what we had as the best we could do and called it a day.
DA: I cut a version of one of these exorcisms and the degradation of the recordings seemed to be the key. Worldizing through a handy cam seemed to be the type approach that would work. To be honest, I haven’t even seen the finished film yet as its not yet released in New Zealand, so I’ll see what they ended up using in a few days.
DS: There’s a cool sounding phone call in the film using some kind of static flutter, how did you guys approach it?
MM: Interesting you should ask about this one sound beat as the director and editor both loved this sound yet it was a simple static sound from my library that I threw in for the first temp mix just hoping to give the call a sense that it was coming from a greater distance than America. (Not sure how far away Hell is). It never changed from that day forward. It’s a crappy mono radio static that Mike Chock cut so that all the pops and clicks were highlighted in the right places. The father’s voice (Rutger Hauer) was also a very raw recording done on-set that we had always meant to redo in ADR but it’s sonic shortcomings added to the desired effect. At the end of the call, we put Rutgers voice in a little reverb as if to say it was coming from a different place than the hospital.